Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fast Sword Draw: actually trying it out for myself

Well, I thought it was about time I did this myself. So I went outside onto our back paddock, aimed a video camera at myself and did some draws on thrown bamboo sticks. This short video contains three draws, in ascending order of complicatedness, if you will. Unsurprisingly, the first is the fastest.

Drawing times are calculated from the number of frames. In the first draw the time is taken between the beginning of movement of the hand and the contact with the target. In the last two draws, timing starts when the stick is released.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stupidity, Our Evolutionary Burden

I guess it's a common enough experience: stupid people and stupid behavior seem to be everywhere—including, humiliatingly, some contributions of one's own. Still, one tends to be much more forgiving toward oneself and find 'reasons' for doing things that, from any other point of view must surely be considered inflicted with a measure of stupidity.

But when one is bombarded by evidence at all levels that Frank Zappa was right ("Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."), it can be hard to find a reason to excuse the continued existence of a species inflicted with such overwhelming numbers of truly, ineffably, usually incorrectably stupid individuals, all of whom seem to get even more stupid when placed into groups, which apparently acts as stupidity amplifiers. And this discourages even an optimist like myself; which is saying a lot. But the evidence for those who claim that we are actually getting smarter—through, for example, the influence of 'education', which is, of course, delivered at all levels by those who blessed with copious amounts of stupidity; definitely no less than the 'average' population—is...well...zero, basically. And not just 'basically'. It's zero no matter how you try to spin it.

Lest anyone thinks that I'm being judgmental, let me correct that impression. I know that 'stupid' tends to be used as invective, but I'm not doing that. I only lapse into 'judgment' mode if faced with situations like the other day, when my car was at the front of a four-car pileup, caused by someone ramming into the third car behind me with sufficient force to crash the two cars in front of him, both stationary and with their brakes on into my tail end. I was able to drive away with minor damage from the crash, unlike the other participants, because of the dampening effect of the intervening vehicles; but that didn't stop me from, very judgmentally, thinking of the driver who caused the accident as a 'stupid idiot'. Similarly emotional subtext also adheres all my assessments of politicians, who actually are stupid idiots, without any exception I am aware of—and all-too-often they are also criminal ones, who should be jailed for life, or worse. This includes individuals in the current Australian federal and certain Australian State governments, who should be held fully, directly and, I believe, criminally responsible, for the actual deaths of people who should never have died. I will name no names, but just mention two instances: 'Federal Home Insulation Scheme' and 'Queensland Health System'. And that's not even remotely close to being the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Far from it.

You think that war is bad? The carnage in society caused by the stupidity of people in governments at all levels, far outdoes anything happening currently in current war zones in terms of, in this instance, Australian soldier casualties. Add to that deaths or serious injuries, of the physical and mental kind, done to individuals as a result of the stupidity of non-politicians, which means everybody from stupid drivers to stupid corporate executives, scientists, doctors, engineers, and so on.

Stupidity is why the human species might not actually survive after all. The kind that, no doubt was on the minds of the following writers (quoted from Wikipedia):

The first book in English on stupidity was A Short Introduction to the History of Stupidity by Walter B. Pitkin (1932):

Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity.

According to In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters, (2003) by Merrill R. Chapman:

The claim that high-tech companies are constantly running into 'new' and 'unique' situations that they cannot possibly be expected to anticipate and intelligently resolve is demonstrably false....The truth is that technology companies are constantly repeating the same mistakes with wearying consistency...and many of the stupid things these companies do are completely avoidable.

Enough already, yes? It's just too damn depressing, is it not?

Still, let us inject some 'perspective' into this. For the definitions of 'stupidity' leave something to be desired, in that they do not actually define what it actually is, except in a circular kind of way. I'd like to propose an approach that may be more fruitful:

'Stupid' is an attribute attached to a behavior that happens as a result of the one(s) acting 'stupidly' failing to apply the maximal capacity of their intellects to resolving a problem, or dealing with a situation, they are faced with.

The causes of this failure can be wide-ranging: from simple mental dullness, to intent and/or emotion over-ruling better judgment, to situational over-complexity overwhelming the individuals mental capacities.

Stupidity is usually detected by others—correctly or incorrectly, because said 'others' might actually be the 'stupid' ones!—because their p.o.v. differs, and they 'see' things the person acting stupidly doesn't. 'Stupidity' is often used by stupid people as a epithet, to denigrate, possibly very un-stupid, actions by the ones assessed so unfavorably.

Yet stupidity is nothing but the result of the basic flaws inherent in the evolutionary process. After all, 'intelligence' is a property, if you will, of the human brain/mind that served only one purpose, namely survival. The intelligent animals survived to breed in greater numbers than the dumb ones. But intelligence is actually very specific and tends to be trained for in particular contexts: those a creature can identify, implicitly or explicitly, as requiring some sort of survival response. Being adapted to survive in one context, however, does not imply that this does get carried over into other, apparently unrelated, ones. The brain, despite its vast capabilities, is still a limited system that can only deal with so many things at once and pay attention to a limited range of attention-attracting items, all of which are competing with each other for...well, attention.

All of this, together with a sub-awareness instinct system, contribute to creating what we commonly know as 'stupidity'. It's as simple as that. Blame it on evolution, because evolution didn't have the time—and by now has been bypassed through science and medicine, which basically nuke the classic evolutionary procedures—to adapt us to a world in which our survival, as individuals, societies and the species, has become contingent on factors unknown to the creatures from whom we derive.

None of this, of course, helps to abate the flashes—and occasionally more than just 'flashes'—or irritation one might feel when faced with an avalanche of evidence for the pervasiveness of stupidity just about everywhere; from the casual to the persistent, from the petty to the grandiose, from the trivial to the significant. But when one finds it in oneself—as I did the other day when I wasn't paying attention and told myself "ahh, that's OK, I don't need to wear protective gloves" and promptly cut my hand in a place that's going to take some time to heal, and where I should count myself lucky that things hadn't turned out much more serious—it's probably a good time to reflect on it with what you might call 'perspective'.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Nonlinearity of Life and Social Homogenization

Someone I know well—and this is where credit must go in this case—used the adjective ('non-linear') as applied to people's lives the other day, and as I thought about it, it did indeed make sense. As a former part-time 'mathematician'—not the careful phrasing—I was used to applying 'non-linearity' in the context of mathematics, but I hadn't thought about applying it to life, even though it's a prime example of the phenomenon, if that's what you want to call it.

Actually, life should probably be described as predominantly non-linear with a few minor discontinuities thrown in for good measure. Of course, the ultimate 'discontinuity' is death, but let's ignore that unpleasant final certainty. Still, with all the yak-speak extant these days in health bureaucracy—'negative treatment outcomes' and gems like that—I fancy we might feel inclined to rename 'death' to 'final life discontinuity', or something along those lines.

But I digress—e.g. I was being non-linear, which requires a discontinuity to get back on track.

'Linear' lives are predictable lives. There's a plan, and the execution of said plan—subject to there being no falling pianos or contingencies like that—proceeds more or less along the planned track. Things may not be entirely 'y=a+bx' straight, but the deviations aren't of too high and order. Maybe a small quadratic factor, and, if it really gets outrageously curvy, an even smaller cubic one.

Example:

Boy meets girl. Girl and boy like each other. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl and boy have sex; repeatedly. (The latter two may be exchanged.) Boy and girl move in together. Girl and boy get engaged. Boy and girl get married. (Somewhere in here, one or both have to get jobs, I suppose.) Girl and boy have kids. Boy and Girl buy a house with a whooping mortgage. Girl and Boy bring up kids. Kids leave home. Boy and girl divorce, because they really don't know what the hell to do with each other now. (Alternative: Girl and boy 'retire' and die; boy first.)

Quite linear, and, with some variations but clearly recognizable, the course charted by many, if not most—and stuck so, as if their lives depended on it; which they do, up to a point. People who adopt this course, usually because they don't know that there's any other way to live their once-off never-to-have-a-second-chance lives, are often happy enough; on average possibly more so than those whose lives don;t follow such predictable courses. For much of the time anyway. But their 'medium' lives—that's like 'medium done'—seldom interrupted by flashes of extremes of joy or sadness, can occasionally bring about surprises. Everything settles down into routines, from marriages to jobs, even those who might initially have appeared to be anything but routine. Like who would think that being, say, a successful author could be anything but not-routine. But there are those whose life stories, on a non-author level, are as tepid as stale dishwater.

Linear lives can, and often will, be disrupted, possibly forever by various types of internally-generated 'crises'. I've seen a number of linear lives serious derailed by accumulations of personal dissatisfaction that eventually become too powerful to fight. In many cases you wouldn't have seen it coming—except in hindsight when rationalization often provides "I saw the signs" epiphanies and retrospective narratives—while in others it's actually pretty clear fairly far ahead of any visible cracks.

And there are externally-imposed crises galore, of course. Catastrophes abound, their scope small to huge. Any of these has the potential for completely destroying linear lives, though not necessarily those who lead them.

What to make of linear lives, in any cultural context? I've come to the unsurprising conclusion that they are necessary—in the sense that people who lead them form the infrastructures of all societies, and especially those in the modern world, where linearity is actively encouraged by those who would try to determine the shape of societies. Linearity of life and social homogenization—not just of the gender kind—are essential to enable societies to exist, independent of their size and structure. You can't have a 'society' of people who act non-linearly, or who arrange their lives along non-predictable, non-conformist precepts. Because 'conformity' is the direct behavior-counterpart of life-linearity.

The other conclusion I've come to, equally unsurprisingly, is that those whose lives and actions do not follow the predictive schemes of the 'linears'—that's another word, closely associated with 'homogenis'—do so, and are still able to live in a social environment that will, to an extent anyway, tolerate and occasionally support their lives' non-linearities, only because of the infrastructure of linears surrounding them.

It's a humbling thought, and maybe it should give pause to those who look down their noses at what they might consider the dull lives of the rest of the ruck. Not that it should entice them to join the masses, but it's always good to keep things in perspective, lest one gets carried away by one's own tunnel-vision and one's overinflated sense of personal grandiosity.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Nicholl Screenwriting Competition

Haven't entered a screenplay into the Nicholl Screenwriting Competition for a few years now, though back in the days, like 2001 and 2004, I did get into the quarterfinals of that contest with a historical romance/adventure called The Weaponsmaster, the synopsis on my website reads as follows:

A small kingdom in medieval France:

Fifteen years after his parents were murdered, Antione returns for a reckoning. But the murderer is now a general. Antoine manages to inveigle himself at court in the role of the king's new weaponsmaster. The role includes the tuition of the unruly crown princess Darcie, who is the focus of intrigues and assassination plots. Soon, Antoine's desire for revenge comes into conflict with his professional and personal interest in her.

It's unusual for a fun-piece like that to get this far in the competition, but it did. I guess I must have done something right. Still, quarterfinals is quarterfinals; and it ain't semifinals, finals or winning.

In years after that I have submitted other screenplays, one of the same genre, which did well (top 10%) but no better than that, and another, which was contemporary, but that didn't even get a mention. I guess I suck at contemporary, non-fantasy fiction. Oh, yes, and I think I also submitted a version of Dating Blind, the movie I eventually shot myself, but that was a no-go as well.

With that kind of record, some people—those who think of fame, glory and instant wealth— might feel encouraged to continue submitting year after year, working away like beavers on their submissions during the preceding year. You're allowed three simultaneous submissions, so there's a year's work in it, if one is thus disposed.

Me, I'm more jaundiced about things. One does get cynical after sufficient rejections, and I have other things to do with my life; and with writing, too. Like I have two novels that need serious attention. So, when earlier this year I thought about the Nicholl, I said to myself something like "yeah, maybe, but only if...". And the year passed. April came. The May 1 deadline approached—actually 'sneaked up on me' is more like it—and still no screenplay. I had thought about something that I really wanted to write about, and I even had a basic starting point...but a lot of people have that. It's a long way from there to a 'story'.

Besides, there's working for a living—currently that goes in stops and starts, but when a 'start' period is on, then it's like 50 hours+ per week—and that doesn't really leave much space and time for polished screenplay writing, or any damn screenplay for that matter, and especially to deadlines.

So, April was heading toward the end. Last Sunday, a week before the deadline, I told myself that I might as well try, even though I still only had something like 1/5 of the story worked out, and all of that was at the beginning an the end. The middle, however, is the hard part. The dreaded ACT 2. The thing that gets the story from the beginning to the end. Actually, it was worse. I just had a less-than-concrete notion of the end, though I knew what it was going to be like. That's hard to explain; it means that I knew the feeling of it, the closure and all that, but just how...well, no damn idea.

None of which bodes well for a week's part-time screenplay writing. Minimum of 90 pages, that working out to the same number of minutes, give or take. I ended up with 100 pages. Don't ask me how, because I don't know. I mean, I do know, technically speaking: 100 pages filled with words, dialogue and action. But that's not what fills pages. The words got to come from somewhere, and it better not be some Godot-esque void.

So, where did they come from? I learned—re-learned, had confirmed and re-verified—that indeed it's all about trusting the process and the power of a narrative with interesting characters that one cares about and a situation that really stretches their ability to cope. Well, at least I cared about them, and that's important, because if the story-teller doesn't really care, then the audience can't be asked to be any more engaged.

There is a MacGuffin, of course, but I've always tried to make my MacGuffins so integral to the story and so important to its characters that they never suffer the fate of so many others, which are just window-dressing and may eventually even be forgotten about. In this instance, the MacGuffin isn't only the 'mystery'-genre element—though this script isn't a 'mystery'—but had a direct bearing on the resolution of an apparently irresolvable dilemma for the characters.

I should mention that when I started writing I had no idea that this was the way it would come out. But it did, and in the end it made sense—to me at least. I'm kinda hoping that it'll make sense to the script readers as well. But the MacGuffin is still just a MacGuffin. Ultimately it all hangs on whether the readers connect enough with characters whose actions, in some sense, may well evoke initial instinctive rejection, or, alternatively, an interest for all the wrong reasons. I want the readers to fall in love with the characters and eventually to want them to succeed and come out on top. And I want them to have that terrible sinking feeling when things go wrong.

In some ways, another intention of this script—whose name I withhold for reasons having to do with it's being sub-judice—is also meant to be subversive, in a very benevolent kind of sense. I've done 'subversive' before, in my books mainly, but this here is probably my most open and most contemporary attempt. And, yes, this submission is, again, a 'contemporary' piece, without violence even, except of the non-physical kind, with a bit of retrospective domestic violence thrown in.

As I said though, I seem to suck at 'contemporary'. Still, it was what came up at this particular point. And, yes, it got submitted, before the deadline. A first draft submission, written inside less than a week, part-time. It'll be interesting to see if it gets anywhere at all. Watch this space—later in the year. Or not, because if there's nothing then I'm not going to write about it.

But right now I'm patting myself on the back. And, also, it's the kind of script that so potentially low-budget that I might well film it myself one day when I have the time. Like Dating Blind.